When Denzel Washington won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Dramatic Movie for his role in “The Hurricane” in 2000, he noted: “No African-American has won Best Actor Golden Globe since Sidney Poitier, until I did.” He was the first black actor to win the award in 36 years, and in 1989, he was the first black actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor (Glory) since Poitier won it in 1963.
In fact, only 21 blacks have been nominated for Oscars compared with more than 350 whites. Fewer blacks have actually won the award. Yet, Washington insists that Hollywood is colour blind when it comes to business.
“When I was nominated for “Malcolm X” and Al Pacino won for “Scent of A Woman,” people said ‘Well, is that racist because he won and I didn’t?’ I said ‘Al Pacino was nominated 8 times and hadn’t won. I had been nominated twice and I already won. So it’s easy and sometimes convenient to say it’s racial.’”
Indeed, from his 6 Academy nominations, Washington won 2 Oscars for Best Actor: one for “Glory (1989)” and the other for “Training Day (2001),” rendering him the record holder of most nominations and wins by an African American. But his success story is rare among blacks, who often complain about discrimination in the film business, pointing out that black directors make up only 4% of the Directors Guild of America and 6.6% of the 839 writers employed on prime-time television dramas and comedies.
Washington admits that some of it is racism. “You can’t legislate love or business,” he concedes. “It’s a process. If you’ve been held back for 400 years as most African Americans have, through slavery, just the fact that when you’re let go, you’re probably going to do that. It’s going to take a long time to do this. Not just for you to stand up, but for those to recognise you, for those to embrace you, for those to think that you’re good business. Because again, this is business. No matter what colour you are, if you don’t do good business, you’re not going to get more opportunities. It’s called show business; it should be called business show. It’s a process and I think it’s getting better.”
Having generated over $3 billion at the global box office through his films during his three decade career, the 59 year-old actor is considered a good business in Hollywood. Few actors could guarantee the solid numbers his movies consistently deliver. In fact, he has outlasted white actors of his generation, such as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, who have seen their box office power wane over the last 10 years. Last weekend, his new gritty thriller “The Equalizer” opened with a stellar $35 million.
“We all have to keep trying, and not just point the finger at the one who has to make the hard decision, because if I gotta go spend this $100 million, I could use Abdul to play the lead opposite Nicole Kidman, but I better go with Brad Pitt, now you pick one,” he laughs.
Washington attributes his success to hard work. When he is not acting in a movie, he directs one, or he goes to the theatre. This year, he was not involved in making a movie, but he spent 6 months working on the Broadway play, Fences, which won the Tony for Best Revival.
In the meantime, the success of “The Equalizer,” in which he plays an ex CIA operative decimating a brutal Russian crime ring, has prompted talk of a sequel, an idea that the superstar is not dismissing. “It’s up to the audience. It’s what they want, not what we want.”
Given his age, the mere thought of launching an action franchise with Washington in the lead is a testament to Hollywood’s trust in him and his capability to deliver. Doing so, he will be breaking another record for being the first black lead in a Hollywood franchise.